Two weeks ago, Timothy Williamson, a professor of logic at Oxford University, published a remarkably wooly-headed attack on naturalism, “Naturalism and its limits” in the New York Times Opinionator section. He decried naturalism as a philosophy on various unconvincing grounds, including the idea that using natural methods to investigate nature was tautological, “science” was ill-defined, there was no clear place for mathematics as a science, other methods of inquiry might discover truth, and so on.
Two days ago, Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke University, responded in a piece at the same site called “Why I am a naturalist.” His response is succinct and devastating, and makes two main points:
- Science wins because it works. That’s a quote from Stephen Hawking, and Rosenberg, like me, agrees: we can ground a philosophical naturalism in the remarkable success of methodological naturalism in helping us understand nature, and the abject failure of any other methology, especially religion, to find the truth. As Rosenberg notes:
But 400 years of scientific success in prediction, control and technology shows that physics has made a good start. We should be confident that it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.
Naturalists recognize that science is fallible. Its self-correction, its continual increase in breadth and accuracy, give naturalists confidence in the resources they borrow from physics, chemistry and biology. The second law of thermodynamics, the periodic table, and the principles of natural selection are unlikely to be threatened by future science. Philosophy can therefore rely on them to answer many of its questions without fear of being overtaken by events.
If you want to see why the success of methodological naturalism (the reliance on empirical methods to understand natural phenomena) can serve as a grounding for philosophical naturalism (the “worldview” that material and physical nature is all there is), read Barbara Forrest’s important essay, “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism: clarifying the connection.” She shows that we don’t really need an a priori philosophical justification for philosophical naturalism: the worldview is justified from the bottom up—by the success of methodological naturalism (i.e., science) in understanding the universe.
- Science is the only real way of gaining knowledge about the world. Yes, I risk being accused of scientism here, but if you construe “science” broadly—as the use of reason, observation, experiment, replication by independent observers, all heavily seasoned with doubt—then I see no other way of understanding our world and universe. Literature and the other arts can help us empathize with the feelings of others, give us a new way of seeing, and share a sense of personal validation, but that is not knowledge. As Rosenberg says:
“Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?” Professor Williamson asked in his essay. His question may be rhetorical, but the naturalist has an answer to it: nothing that revelation, inspiration or other non-scientific means ever claimed to discover has yet to withstand the test of knowledge that scientific findings attain. What are those tests of knowledge? They are the experimental/observational methods all the natural sciences share, the social sciences increasingly adopt, and that naturalists devote themselves to making explicit. You can reject naturalists’ epistemology, or treat it as question begging, but you can’t accuse them of not having one.
Religion has an epistemology, too: dogma and personal revelation (seasoned with wish thinking) but in thousands of years it hasn’t vouchsafed us one bit of verifiable knowledge about reality. And as for the arts:
Naturalism. . . won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s “default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.” If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.